Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Slice of the real America

After a leisurely beginning to our day, including reading yesterday's Globe and Mail, showering and having our devotions, we went to the Best Western next door for breakfast. For just under $16 for the two of us, we could help ourselves to a generous buffet: pancakes, sausages, eggs, hashbrowns, cereal, fruit, yogurt, bagels, muffins, toast or waffles, all of it very good quality.

The breakfast room was packed with families with children and with couples of all ages. A buzz of friendly conversation filled the room, and piped in muzak was blessedly absent. Several of the men wore their baseball caps while eating. Not one woman was wearing a skirt. Sweaters, t-shirts, hoodies were the order of the day. These were absolutely your salt-of-the-earth people. I was tempted to take a notebook and make an informal poll: where do you get your news and other information?

On the wall hung an old horse collar and well-used yoke. A slice of pine tree trunk sprouting a fistful of twigs tied in rope and topped by a flat metal cutout of an obviously male bison on a piece of rebar decorated each table.

A seriously cheerful older fellow, short and slim with greying hair pulled behind his ears and flowing down to his collar, was hurrying around, picking up empty plates and encouraging everyone to take another helping. "Wouldn't want you to go away hungry!"

We finished up with coffee for me and tea for Jim while we planned our goals for today. At the cashier's desk, another of "Charlie's" duties, Jim remarked on how busy Charlie was. He replied, "Life is wonderful, isn't it?"

Leaving Great Falls, we took highway 87 to Fort Benton. Fort Benton is a very pleasant small town on the banks of the Missouri River in the shelter of a valley. No museums were open, it being Sunday, so we walked the River Walk. There were many interesting signs, pictures on one side, and on the other side, information detailing the historic buildings, some still standing, and personages, including an acting governor who fell? was pushed?off a river boat and drowned.

The buildings lining Main Street were well preserved, for the most part, including these called "The Bloodiest Block in the West" and here's the sign that explains it:

Hope you can read the fine print!

Several buildings are for sale, and most businesses are looking for "a part-time cashier."

We strolled past the Senior Center and sitting at the window table was an enormous woman wearing a lime green fortrel top, shuffling cards.

We wound up our visit with a look at the restored blockhouse at Fort Benton, famous (or infamous if you're from Alberta) for being the starting point of the Whoop Up Trail--the source of supplies for the hard-living cowboys in Alberta, source of liquor for the doomed first nations people, and, surprisingly, the route through which the newly created Northwest Mounted Police received their pay packets from Ottawa.

One very interesting and telling differences between the U.S. and Canada is that the U.S. Calvary fought the Indians and protected the settlers, and the R.C.M.P (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), the modern form of the Northwest Mounted Police, was formed to protect the Indians from the whiskey traders the other scalawags that came up from Montana.

Leaving Fort Benton we drove south on Hwy 80 to Geraldine through typical rolling short-grass prairie, including quite a few fields of new spring-like green, some winter wheat newly planted, and some resurgent hayfields. Dotted among the fields were a few alkalai dry sloughs.

We turned east on 81. Both 80 and 81 are small, 2 lane state highways, pretty much empty of traffic. The scenery brought to mind: "O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesty, above the fruited plain." Regular farming area, fields dotted with big round hay bales, other fields populated by grazing Black Angus cattle.

As we drove the scenery changed again and again, going as we drove east from farmland to mostly empty fields, dry grasses redolent in the warm October sunshine. Approaching the Judith Mountains, you see evergreens growing on the upper ridges, interspersed with surprisingly green hayfields.

We went south to Lewistown, and then east on Hwy 200. Now that we are in the Judith Mountains, we can see that the evergreens are mainly pines. And very soon, coming down from these hills we see no more pines. A bald eagle feeds on prey close to the road with a coterie of crows waiting their turn.

Montana posts white crosses beside its roads to mark spots where fatalities have occurred. I think it was Sharon Buttala who referred to these in one of her books. We drive by a cheerful shrine of blue and silver tinselly streamers waving briskly in the breeze, marking a group of seven or eight crosses.

Hwy 200 continues east through a long 100-mile stretch of sagebrush country to Jordan, Montana. It's a good road with very little traffic. Most of this area is fenced, so it must be used for running cattle, but we saw very few.

What we did see were a variety of very strange landforms: hills with the tops chopped off completely flat, humpy little striped hills, and perfectly conical hills setting lonesome by themselves.

From Jordan I drove south on Hwy 59, and this was really a deserted road. I set the cruise control at 70 mph (legal limit) and touched the brake only once in the next 83 miles. That was for a short 55 mph stretch in deference to a few scattered buildings that couldn't even be called a hamlet. There was never a car in my lane, either in front of me or behind me, and in the first 50 miles I met only 4 other vehicles. By the time we reached Miles City, we had met a total of only 12 vehicles in the whole 83 miles.

Now we're settled into another Motel 6, this one with the very worst staff we have ever encountered. Hope for a quiet night!

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